Thesis 73


Thesis 73

Everyware must default to harmlessness.

The first of our principles concerns what happens when ubiquitous systems fail. What happens when a critical percentage of sensors short out, when the building's active lateral bracing breaks down, when weather conditions disrupt the tenuous wireless connection? Or what if there's a blackout?

"Graceful degradation" is a term used in engineering to express the ideal that if a system fails, if at all possible it should fail gently in preference to catastrophically; functionality should be lost progressively, not all at once. A Web browser might be unable to apply the proper style sheet to a site's text, but it will still serve you with the unstyled text, instead of leaving you gazing at a blank screen; if your car's ABS module goes out, you lose its assistance in autopumping the brakes ten times a second, but you can still press down on the brake pedal in order to slow the car.

Graceful degradation is nice, but it doesn't go nearly far enough for our purposes. Given the assumption of responsibility inherent in everyware, we must go a good deal further. Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures users' physical, psychic, and financial safety.

Note that this is not an injunction to keep subjects safe at all times: That is as ridiculous as it would be undesirable. It's simply, rather, a strong suggestion that when everyware breaks downas it surely will from time to time, just like every other technical system that humanity has ever imaginedit should do so in a way that safeguards the people relying on it.

What precisely "safety" means will obviously vary with place and time. Even as regards physical safety alone, in the United States, we find ourselves in a highly risk-averse era, in which public fear and litigiousness place real limits on what can be proposed. (A playground surface that no German would think twice about letting their children frolic on simply wouldn't fly in the States, and I sometimes wonder what our media would do to fill airtime were it not for flesh-eating bacteria, bloodthirsty sharks, missing blonde women, and al-Qaida sleeper cells.)

Coming to agreement as to what constitutes psychic and financial safety is probably more culture-dependent still. So it's entirely possible that working out a definition of safety broad enough to be shared will leave few parties wholly content.

But the ubiquitous systems we're talking about engage the most sensitive things in our livesour bodies, our bank accounts, our very identitiesand we should demand that a commensurately high level of protection be afforded these things.


Thesis 74

Everyware must be self-disclosing.

The second principle of ethical development concerns provisions to notify us when we are in the presence of some informatic system, however intangible or imperceptible it otherwise may be.

We've seen that everyware is hard to see for a variety of reasons, some circumstantial and some intentional. Information processing can be embedded in mundane objects, secreted away in architectural surfaces, even diffused into behavior. And as much as this may serve to encalm, it also lends itself to too many scenarios in which personal information, including that of the most intimate sort, can be collected without your awareness, let alone your consent.

Given the degree to which ubiquitous systems will be interconnected, information once collected can easily, even inadvertently, be conveyed to parties unknown, operating outside the immediate context.

This is an unacceptable infringement on your right of self-determination. Simply put, you should know what kinds of information-gathering activities are transpiring in a given place, what specific types of information are being collected, and by whom and for what purpose. Finally, you should be told how and in what ways the information-gathering system at hand is connected to others, even if just as a general notification that the system is part of the global net.

We might express such an imperative like this: Ubiquitous systems must contain provisions for immediate and transparent querying of their ownership, use, and capabilities.

Everyware must, in other words, be self-disclosing. Such disclosures ensure that you are empowered to make informed decisions as to the level of exposure you wish to entertain.

So, for example, if the flooring in eldercare housing is designed to register impacts, it should say so, as well as specifying the threshold of force necessary to trigger an alert. If the flooring does register a fall, what is supposed to happen? If the flooring is connected in some way to a local hospital or ambulance dispatcher, which hospital is it? Even in such an apparently benign implementation of everywareand maybe even especially in such casesthe choices made by designers should always be available for inspection, if not modification.

None of this is to say that users should be confronted with a mire of useless detail. But seamlessness must be an optional mode of presentation, not a mandatory or inescapable one.

Less ominously, though, such disclosures also help us know when otherwise intangible services are available to us. When an otherwise unremarkable object affords some surprising functionality, or when a digital overlay of information about some place exists, we need to have some way of knowing these things that does not itself rely on digital mediation.

Design researcher Timo Arnall has developed a vocabulary of graphic icons that communicate ideas like these: a friendly, human-readable equivalent of the "service discovery layer" in Bluetooth that specifies what devices and services are locally available. Perhaps Arnall's icons could serve as the basis of a more general graphic language for ubiquitous systemsa set of signs that would eventually become as familiar as "information" or "bathroom," conveying vital ideas of the everyware age: "This object has invisible qualities," or "network dead zone."

Whether we use them to protect ourselves from intrusive information collection or to discover all the ways our new technology can be used, provisions for transparent self-disclosure on the part of ubiquitous systems will be of critical importance in helping us find ways to live around and with them. Such knowledge is the basis of any meaningful ability on our part to decide when and to what degree we wish to engage with everyware and when we would prefer not to.